Why was Executive Order No. 9981 so important?

During World War II, the U.S. military was racially segregated. The bravery and valor of certain African-American soldiers and squadrons helped change this, however.
During World War II, the U.S. military was racially segregated. The bravery and valor of certain African-American soldiers and squadrons helped change this, however.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's difficult to find the silver lining in crisis situations, especially ones as massive and tragic as World War II and the Holocaust. But in the context of civil rights, these tragedies were just the shot in the arm that the United States needed to call attention to an important issue.

In the 1930s, the Nazi party rose to power in Germany and began to enforce racist policies on the basis of their philosophy of racial hygiene. Through forced sterilization and attempted genocide, the Nazis wanted to cleanse the nation of what they considered lesser races in an effort to strengthen and generally promote the "improvement" of humankind. While the world watched in horror to see where racism could lead, Americans were encouraged to take a closer look at the racial discrimination inside their own borders.

By 1941, when the United States was increasing production for the war abroad, the insatiable demand for workers helped to dissolve the lines of segregation that kept African-Americans and whites separate. Under pressure from African-American civil rights leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in industries with federal contracts. As a result, many African-Americans suffering under the oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South moved where the jobs were -- Northern and Western cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles and Seattle. While discrimination was still present in these areas, it was less severe. African-American groups gained a sense of empowerment through exercising new freedoms and privileges not common in the South [source: Packard].

In December 1941, the United States was pulled into the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. During this battle, the valor of one African-American took the spotlight. Doris Miller was a cook aboard the USS West Virginia when he disobeyed an order to abandon ship. Instead, he manned a 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun and, despite not having any training in the weapon, started firing and successfully shot down a few Japanese planes.

African-Americans fought in every branch of the military during World War II. But throughout the war, the U.S. armed forces remained segregated. It took a groundbreaking executive order after the war to change that. Historians credit figures like Miller for calling people's attention to the injustice of the military segregation policies. In particular, one prominent African-American unit is known for its contribution to the war: the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen are shown here in training on Jan. 23, 1942.
The Tuskegee Airmen are shown here in training on Jan. 23, 1942.
AP Photo/U.S. Army Signal Corps

The U.S. military didn't allow African-Americans to fly planes in the service until civil rights organizations put pressure on the War Department in the late 1930s. By then, President Roosevelt had already been preparing for the possibility of entering the war by gearing up a pilot training program. In January 1941, the War Department created the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps (the Air Force didn't exist yet).

The army used the Tuskegee Institute and airfield in Tuskegee, Ala., where the experimental African-American squadron would be trained in single-engine planes. The training location is why the squadron became informally known as the Tuskegee Airmen. To lead the unit, the army chose Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a strict disciplinarian who would later become the first African-American general in the Air Force. Davis encouraged his pilots to combat racism by proving their valor and skills in battle.

In July 1941, the first class began navigation and meteorology training. Those who qualified were transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Field for pilot training. By the time the pilots graduated in March 1942, the United States was entrenched in World War II. However, the pilots trained for another year before showing their stuff in the Allied invasion of Italy. Their first mission took place on June 2, 1943. They flew P-40 Warhawks for an attack on Pantelleria, an Italian island. They also successfully fought the Luftwaffe, the German air force, a month later.

The relatively inexperienced squadron soon faced difficulties, however. Col. William M. Momyer, the commander of the 33rd Fighter Group that the Tuskegee squadron was then a part of, complained that the unit wasn't aggressive enough and lacked discipline [source: Sutherland]. The squadron was temporarily suspended from combat and might have been dissolved completely were it not for Davis, who pleaded their case. In January 1944, the squadron helped fight a German air invasion and shot down 12 planes; as a result, the War Department awarded the group a Distinguished Unit Citation.

By this time, the squadron was absorbed into the 332nd Fighter Group, a group of four all African-American squadrons that were formed after the original 99th squadron. Davis was also promoted to colonel to lead the 332nd. By the end of the war, more than 1,000 pilots trained at Tuskegee. The 332nd group lost only 150 pilots, while destroying more than 200 enemy planes in the sky and on the ground -- in addition to hundreds of railroad cars, dozens of boats and one destroyer.

Despite the undeniable success achieved by the Tuskegee Airmen and the 332nd Fighter Group, the military remained rigidly segregated by the war's end.

Desegregating the Military

President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. It banned racial segregation in the U.S. military, though the process of desegregation took several years.
President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. It banned racial segregation in the U.S. military, though the process of desegregation took several years.

During World War II, approximately 909,000 African-Americans enlisted in the military, and about 500,000 of them were stationed overseas [source: Harris]. After the war, President Harry S. Truman recognized how hypocritical it was to have a segregated military while he'd been trying to promote democracy and acceptance overseas [source: Geselbracht].

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, was making some milestone civil rights decisions throughout the 1940s. In 1944, the court banned the all-white political primaries that were occurring in the South and struck down segregation in interstate bus travel two years later. Many Southerners in the House of Representatives and the Senate were still effectively blocking anti-lynching legislation after the outbreak of race riots.

In November 1947, civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Grant Reynolds formed the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, which originally targeted Congress for action to desegregate the military. When they found this route fruitless, they turned to Truman. If he issued an executive order on the issue, it wouldn't be subject to a legislative vote. This was a smart move because in addition to Truman's sympathies toward the cause, he was coming up on an election year. Rooting out discrimination in the military could help him secure the African-American vote, which made up about 10 percent of the electorate.

To give Truman that final push, Randolph and Reynolds sent a letter to Truman, threatening that the African-American youth would boycott the draft if he didn't sign an executive order to end segregation in the military. On July 26, 1948, one month after receiving this letter, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which stated, "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin" [source: Truman Library]. It also created a committee to investigate the state of affairs and rules of the military so that it could report back to the president with suggestions on how to enforce integration.

The military didn't achieve racial integration overnight. Opponents in Congress were able to delay the effort by falsely interpreting Truman's language. Truman wrote that the military needed to achieve integration as fast as possible, "without impairing efficiency or morale." Taking liberties with Truman's language, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall hampered desegregation by prolonging the implementation of integration procedures [source: Geselbracht].

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, much of the military had been racially integrated. By the end of the war, about 10 percent of African-Americans were still serving in segregated units, which were abolished completely in 1954 [source: Harris].

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Sources

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  • Geselbracht, Raymond H. "The civil rights legacy of Harry S. Truman." Truman State University, 2007. (April 23, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=rQbwPWTu4QMC
  • Harris, Robert L., Jr., Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. "The Columbia guide to African-American History Since 1939." Columbia University Press, 2008. (April 23, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=Y6yuwT54mA0C
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